A whimsical Phil James (Uncle
Phil's Books) presents:
snapper-up of unconsidered trifles'
(not recommended for fans of Austen, Dickens, Bunyan et alÖ)
I canít begin to tell you tell you how relieved I am. Itís as if a lifetimeís burden has been lifted from my aching shoulders by an uncharacteristically benevolent angel. Itís as if several billion prime brain cells have been released from decades of worry duty and can be recycled into concerning themselves with things pleasant, like sex, or food, or Lesley Garrett; or can be sent as cannon fodder up to the front line next time I go on a bender. Itís as if my personal Road to Damascus has instantaneously sprouted high-tech twenty-first century halogen street-lighting.
But maybe Iíd better explain.
For many years now, Iíve kept a Commonplace Book. Well - maybe Ďbookí is slightly too precise a term - what I have is a hotchpotch of ill-assorted bits of paper, scrawled with notes and filed all over the place; yellowing photcopies; articles excised from newspapers and mags; several scruffy notebooks that contain not only literary nuggets, but everything from recipes to out-of-date phone numbers for people I canít remember ever having met, to details of the dayís take for an Antique Fair I did in Builth Wells in 1983; a library full of books with grubby, crumpled, fading Post-it notes doing duty as bookmarks; and a vague but rapidly deteriorating idea as to where I can lay my hands on some juicy morsel of literary merit that first tickled my fancy in 1954 or thereabouts.
So a couple of weeks ago I decided that the time had come for a major rationalisation programme. Iíd enter the whole bang shoot onto my computer, neatly filed, referenced and cross-indexed. Tidiness is all.
A major task, this, but Iím getting there. Another six months should do it. No sweat, apart from a minor case of keyboard wrist and a strong possibility of terminal eyestrain. Iím even learning to read my own handwriting, a skill which has defeated me since I was five years old. And O the joy of re-discovering little gems that havenít seen the light of day since I first read them in my teens, and have been misquoting from memory ever since.
But it wasnít until I came across (after a good twenty years lying fallow at the bottom of a cardboard box) a parody of Pride and Prejudice written in the style of Dylan Thomas (by a comic genius called Stanley Sharpless), that it hit me. Bingo!
Iím never, ever, ever again going to have to force myself to attempt Jane Austen!
I have her Complete Works sitting on my bookshelf. Well, you do, donít you. Theyíve been there for years, glowering guilt at me from every virgin spine. And every so often, in a flush of misguided virtue, Iíve taken down P&P (I always start with P&P, for some reason) and tried to sneak into it. I can quote you the first sentence off by heart, but I donít think Iíve ever got past the second page. Because frankly, the woman is sooooo boring. Itís her prissy, decaffeinated, anaemic style that induces chronic ennui, not the stories per se, which arenít bad - after all, they work beautifully on television or on film - but , goodness me, itís dull stuff to read. And having managed without for sixty years, I suddenly realised that I donít need to make the attempt any more. Yippeeee!
But it gets better, because of course the tedium quotient doesnít only apply to St Jane. Sheís just the tip of the wossname. For starters, I can dump dismal Dickens, piecemeal. Another example of the camera being mightier than the pen. If I feel a Dickens coming on Iíll rent a video of Oliver - at least the tunes are good. I can bin a busload of boring Brontes. I can slap ĎNot Wanted on Voyageí labels onto all twelve turgid volumes of Gibbonís so-called masterpiece. I can consign Carlyle to deserved oblivion. I can trash great screeds of Milton - any good book of quotations will serve to supply a compilation album of the best bits - ďMiltís Greatest HitsĒ, as it were. I can leave Bunyanís Pilgrim to Progress unaided and unread. I can forswear Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Sir Walter-Scott-Fitzgerald, all those interminable Russian novels where everybody has at least three different sets of names and you have to draw up a genealogical flowchart as you go along so as to remember whoís doing what to whom, and why. I can quit trying to struggle through Garcia Lorca. Or Ibsen. Or Goethe. I can pare five centuries of French soi-disant literature down to Candide and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. And no - Iím not forgetting Proust. You can stuff Proust. Il pouvait ennuyer pour La France.
I can even (O Heresy ! O Blasphemy !) conveniently forget my self-imposed annual dose of The Faerie Queene.
It was Arnold Bennett who said something to the effect that ďA list of the masterpieces I have never read would fill a volume.Ē Arnie-boy - Iím right in there with you. There are hundreds of worthy books that Iíve always felt I ought to read; some Iíve tried and failed miserably, some Iíve never got around to, and some Iíve never been able to face.
And Iíve just decided that Iím never going to bother. Iím only going to read what interests me, and the dickens take the rest.
Ainít Freedom wonderful?!